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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Why'd We Study So Hard?

If you've ever wondered how things could stray so far from reality you need only read Dilbert to gain some perspective. Dilbert was created by a disgruntled engineer who worked at Lucent Technologies. Frustrated with the way things were he lashed out with a comic strip depicting his daily work life. You laugh but you know it comes from real life experiences. It is the clash between scientists/engineers and corporate people. Many scientist/engineers know the pain of studying for a differential equations test and a physics test that'll be given on Monday and a statistics test on Tuesday. You walk past the frat house at 3 p.m. on your way to the physical chemistry test on Thursday and the frat brothers are already drinking beers in anticipation of a big weekend.

You think that they'll be sorry. Then you get a job and you reallize that those guys are running around with suits and ties and making decisions on your research budget. They cancel your request for a 30 thousand dollar a year research associate and they give themselves a 35 thousand dollar a year raise. They deny your request to give your current associate a 2 thousand dollar a year raise. The associate gets mad and sues the company. The same executives shell out 10 thousand dollars to defend against the lawsuit.

Worst of all however is the decisions that effect your scientific inquiry or your engineering designs. If you work in Biotechnology for example, you have a drug pipeline. Whatever project you are working on, the goal is to advance the drug towards the market. Here is what one blogger had to say about her job in the clinical affairs department of a large pharmaceutical company. "I've witnessed my industry manipulate, distort, subvert, suppress, and otherwise mangle facts in pursuit of increasing their consumption of the nation's wealth." You do not get credit for stopping a project that is going nowhere. You're job is to advance the project, not stop it. Executives make those decisions.

They are not teaching you how to mangle facts when you are studying for the big tests in college. Science, math and engineering are disciplines that have been advanced by people who have ignored their own hopes and dreams in order to see the world as it is. We learned about forces in nature and a little bit about how to discover such forces. The executives learned about people. They learned about being the best in a group. It has a lot to do with image. It's about looking good and speaking with authority, whether you have any or not. The current business model puts those skills at the top of the food chain. The geeky stuff that comes from science is only sexy when it's a break through. A vaccine for polio or the discovery of PCR will get you noticed. Verifying that the latest siRNA treatment is a bust will get you in the dog house.

So why do we study the hard stuff and work with the hard stuff? I believe that some people are simply wired that way. Some people can sit in meetings and talk about things that lead to nowhere and be satisfied that they've done work. Others aren't satisfied until the talking has ended and it's tiime to test out the theories. The latter prefers more doing than talking. There is a sense of satisfaction that comes from working as a scientist or engineer. It comes from thinking, applying, and seeing results. That's why we study so hard. Nature is tricky and you can't bullshit your way around it. If you're wrong, nature will find a way to let you know. A drug that doesn't work or a bridge that collapses are a couple of ways. You really have to let go of the notion that you will be rewarded financially. You have to be the kind of person who would pursue the cure for cancer even if you knew you would never receive the notoriety for it. Rather than dreaming of a big house and fancy new car, you dream of the day when you do that mouse experiment and you see with your own eyes that the tumors did not grow. You don't want to sit in a board room and here about it from someone else. You want to be there. The only way to get that rush is to work as a scientist with a white lab coat.

1 comment:

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